36 Hours in Tulum

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Did you see the NY Times travel piece called “36 Hours in Tulum?” I watched the video with particular interest since Tulum is only an hour north of me and I’ve now gone a few times for the day.

I think in terms of describing it as a tourist destination, it did a really good job. The beach looks like the above (dang), the town is yogi heaven and you can roll from one linen-draped bar to another and dine exquisitely under jungle canopies.

It also made me think about what I experience when I go to Tulum, and I’m going to try not to do this in a look-at-me-I-live-here-I-know-everything-about-Mexico kind of way. Ok, it will be a tiny bit like that but let’s say it’s more like after-three-months-I’ve-got-a-new-perspective-and-feel-like-sharing.

I’ll start by sketching you the town’s layout.

Tulum has three main tourist areas. There’s the original-original Tulum, the grand-colorful ancient Maya city, now ruins but still spectacular though overrun by German tourists.

There’s the beach, which has both the public section near the ruins and the Zona Hotelera, flanked by shoulder-to-shoulder “eco-chic” hotels.

And there’s the commercial center, basically a strip along a small highway where both sides are lined with restaurants full of tourists and shops selling beautiful embroidered blouses, painted porcelain, and embossed leather bags.

There’s a bus station is in the middle of the commercial center, and this is where I usually arrive.

The thing I notice most when I get off the bus from Carilllo is that the Mexico I’ve grown used to—where Mexicans live, work, go to church, buy groceries—seems to have disappeared.

I am suddenly among small herds of Americans and Europeans wearing yoga outfits, beach coverups, or earthtone hippy gear, everyone gliding in a sun-kissed haze between the mojito bar and the falafel shop. It’s like landing on yoga Mars.

There are Mexicans walking among the tourists, but the majority seem to be working in the shops and restaurants. I notice that many of the tourists don’t attempt Spanish and the shopkeepers don’t expect them to. If you want, you can buy everything in dollars.

But the really crazy thing to me is that if I walk along the main drag and then wander off onto a side street, it’s zip back to Mexico. Turn a corner and the tourists are gone. It’s like falling out the back of a movie set.

Most of what I’ve seen in the back streets—especially on the away-from-the-beach side of the highway–looks a lot like my town. There are women selling squash and spices in the shade of doorways. There are bicycle garages, tortillerias, mini-supers, and popsicle shops. Laundry hangs in the front yards or on the rooftops and in the middle of the day there is the normal mid-day hush when everything closes.

As I wander, I think about that the fact that even 30 years ago, the mainstreet would have looked like the backstreets. It was only in the 1970s that the Mexican government started putting money into developing the Riviera Maya, exploding Cancun from a 100-person Maya village to its current Spring Break self. Once Cancun blew up, the party headed south, transforming Playa del Carmen to Coco Bongo land and then eventually made its way to Tulum.

Tulum is famous for its ancient Maya ruins, preserved by government money. But if you want to catch a glimpse of another Tulum that might not be there for too much longer—where actual Maya people live and don’t dance with headdresses—there are a few things that I’d recommend:

The public beach. It’s amazing and is actually what’s in the picture at the top of this post. On the public beach you get tourists but also lots of jolly Mexican families enjoying the day. If you enter next to the Mezzanine (one of the restaurants mentioned in the article, which does have a good happy hour), go left another two minutes, and you can sit outside and enjoy fresh fried fish, ceviche and a beer with your toes in the sand.

I cannot strongly enough suggest that you try the big red taco joint that’s in the middle of the main strip. Get the tacos al pastor—the roast pork carved off of a gyro-like wheel. Eat this with habanero salsa and pineapple. Be prepared to cry from happiness.

Buy something from a guy on a tricycle. This could be fruit (I recently saw a guy selling mame, which looks like an almond shape coconut with papaya-colored flesh), horchata, or a popsicle.

If you speak any Spanish at all, get in a conversation with a Mexican because he or she is likely to be lovely. No matter how obnoxious tourists can be, Mexicans tend to remain incredibly nice in a way that baffles me, being someone that passive-aggressively kicks people’s heels when I walk through Times Square.

I think the most important reason to do these things is that because with all of the international imports in Tulum, you risk missing that you’re actually in Mexico. Really. If you watch the video in The New York Times, play Count the Mexicans. You will notice that the majority of the people shown aren’t.

One more thing. If you’re going to stay in one of the ecochic resorts, if you can, choose one that’s actually ecologically friendly with solar power and compost toilets. A little secret: the others run on gas generators.

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